Can human beings ever change without a shock to the system?

We talk about wakeup calls – a bereavement, a diagnosis, discovering an uncomfortable truth, a breakup or crisis of some sort – but are we able to proactively change course before the flashing red danger lights and blaring alarms go off?

I’m listening to The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein. It was published in 2008, but is as relevant now as it was then as we contemplate our post-Covid future, the war in Ukraine, and the ever-more-real threat of climate change.

The Shock Doctrine hinges on Milton Friedman’s dictum that:

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

The book explores the various ways that Friedman’s “real change” has been achieved, so far (I’m about a quarter of the way through) focusing mostly on the introduction of his laissez-faire capitalism to Latin America in the 1970s, often through brutal means – democratically elected presidents deposed or assassinated, left-wing intellectuals “disappeared” (i.e. tortured and murdered), populations intimidated into submission to the new regime. (For further reading on this, I recommend The Divide, by Jason Hickel, and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins.)


A Clean Slate

Naomi Klein is not suggesting that Friedman endorsed these genocidal strategies, but rather, explores the ways in which ideologues have attempted to wipe the slate clean in order to conduct their social experiments. Clearly, Friedman believed that this could only be achieved by precipitating a breakdown in the old system.

I am finding it uncomfortable reading for many reasons, but primarily because I don’t like to find myself agreeing with Friedman, whose economic theories I so fundamentally disagree with.

And yet when it comes to how change happens, I somewhat agree. My own forthcoming book features a hypothetical global catastrophe (a massive solar flare – not so far-fetched) that effectively throws the world back into the Dark Ages, enabling humanity to build a new civilisation based on principles of connection and compassion.

Am I just another insane ideologue hoping for a blank slate on which to conduct a social experiment? Of course, I don’t think I am, but probably neither did any of the other individuals that history now regards as unhinged megalomaniacs.

So hence my question: CAN humans change without a crisis?


A Line in the Sand

Psychologically, it seems we like to have a clearly marked turning point. As individuals, we (attempt to) make new resolutions not on any old day of the year, but usually on January 1st, a birthday, or some other significant date. We like to draw a line in the sand between the “old me” and the “new me”. This is an important component of our commitment to change.

Collectively, we’re much the same. Ritual matters. A president signing a new act into existence is a major photo opp, broadcast across the news networks as a symbol that we are doing things differently from now on.

Of course, I recognise there is a big difference between a military coup, a natural catastrophe, a new year resolution, and enacting a new piece of legislation, but they all share the clarity of a single moment in time when the old era ends, and a new era begins.


Kicking the Can Down the Road

When we look at the ecological crisis, though, we keep kicking the can down the road. Global warming, to take one aspect of the crisis, has a major PR problem in that it is invisible to most of us in the Global North (although all too evident in the Arctic and in small island states), and is gradual (although becoming less gradual all the time).

Yes, sure, from time to time heads of state get together and sign something noncommittal and then fail to act on their non-commitments. It is starting to feel very much like the addict who keeps promising to quit, but keeps failing, and the more times they break their promise the less anybody believes it (including themselves).

Paul Gilding, in The Great Disruption, sets out his case that we need to be disrupted before what he calls The Great Awakening. Things have to get worse before they get better. There’s something deeply archetypal about this narrative arc – in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the hero has to go into the innermost cave, endure the ordeal, in order to discover the boon that they will bring back to the ordinary world. We have a strong psychological attraction to the dramatic transformation, the road to Damascus, being reborn. Stories of gradual, mindful change just don’t appeal to our imagination in the same way.


The Easy Way or the Hard Way?

Of course I wish that change could happen proactively, incrementally, and painlessly. I just don’t think it will. The problems that humanity faces now – mass extinction, poverty, inequality, exploitation, violation of human rights, and many more – will persist for as long as the current power structures exist. Those with the power to create change lack the motivation, and those with the motivation lack the power.

I wish it were otherwise, but I believe we need breakdown before we can get to breakthrough.

But what we can do is to nurture the ideas that are lying around. It sticks in my craw to agree with Friedman on this, as I disagree with so much else that he stood for, but he was right on this one. We can start to put into practice, on whatever scale is within our power, the ideas that we would like to see come to life after the apocalypse.

And let’s remember that the original Greek apokalupsis meant “to uncover, reveal” – an apocalypse was originally not an end, but a beginning.

But that’s just my view. What do you think? Can we do this the easy way? Or will we have to do it the hard way?


Featured Photo by Ignacio Amenábar on Unsplash

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